WINE DYNASTIES

Forever making bubbles

Freixenet and Codorníu dominate the cava industry from the same small town in Catalonia

Josep Ferrer and Josep Lluís Bonet in the Freixenet cellar just before Christmas.
Josep Ferrer and Josep Lluís Bonet in the Freixenet cellar just before Christmas.Susanna Sáez

“Mr Ferrer, Mr Ferrer... the elevator is here now.” But by the time the elevator has reached the second basement of Freixenet’s enormous cellar, it is too late. Mr Ferrer has already climbed over 10 of the steep steps, despite the fact that he is 88, has a slight limp, and is honorary president of one of the world’s largest wine groups, with a turnover of 520 million euros.

 “I have to exercise,” says Josep Ferrer Sala, without looking back or reducing speed.

And so one of the great patriarchs of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, a town of 12,000 inhabitants in Barcelona province that lives off the bubbly business, forces his aides to follow him up the stairs, including Josep Lluís Bonet, his nephew and CEO of a company that will turn 100 years old in 2014.

Freixenet became a household name in 1929 thanks to an advert featuring a boy in a red hat and a bottle of sparkling wine under his arm. The company’s popularity grew with the help of its TV commercials that air this time of the year and always feature a celebrity: Shakira, Antonio Banderas and Demi Moore are among those who have participated.

Every Christmas Freixenet workers get a hamper that includes a live rooster

But in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Freixenet is more than just a popular brand. It is a provider of jobs. The local roller hockey team lives off its sponsorship, and a foundation that bears Ferrer’s name contributes half of the tuition fees that allow employees’ children to attend the local Catholic school. And every December 20, workers get a Christmas hamper that includes a live rooster.

“Time is different around here,” says Bonet, referring not so much about the relatively small, rural town as to the firm itself. Until 15 years ago, Freixenet’s plans were inside the head of Josep Ferrer Sala, who would put them to his board (sisters Pilar, Carmen and Dolores) inside the family dining room. That is how they managed to sustain losses for 20 years on their international adventure in Britain, until one year they finally made a profit and became the UK’s leading seller of sparkling wine, and later world leader in sales of cava.

Ferrer recalls with a smile how another industry man came up to him after a meeting and said: “Josep, you like to travel, but you know perfectly well that you will never sell a single bottle of cava.” Decades later, Bonet can now say that “Freixenet has triumphed because of its internationalization.”

This international success was a dream of Pere Ferrer, Josep’s father and the founder of the company. In 1935 he opened the first representation office in New Jersey, but his plans died with him in the Civil War, when he was executed by Republicans. After that, his wife Dolors Sala took charge of the firm until her son Josep was able to take over.

In 1999, Josep told the board that he was ready to take a step back and let the next generation take charge. Members of the three branches of the family — the Ferrers, the Bonets and the Hevias (one aunt was single and died without children) — were given senior management positions. Years have gone by without any changes — no external managers have been hired, no IPOs are expected to let new capital in. But Bonet admits that handing power over to the next generation will be complicated, as there are over 30 members and the capital is much more fragmented.

Over at Codorníu, Freixenet’s biggest rival (located just minutes away, in the same town) managers know what Bonet is talking about. The family that owns this business has 567 members and the firm has 220 shareholders. President Mar Raventós is the person who knows the most about the state of family affairs and its impact on a brand almost five centuries old. “This is a great family and its members are proud to be a part of Codorníu,” she says before admitting that “there is a crisis and the important thing is to resolve it through consensus.” Everyone remembers when company executives decided to appoint an external director general, who lasted just 18 months. He was replaced by Rafael Pagès, another family member with experience abroad.

All the Raventós have gone through the same ritual: moments after being born, they were given a few drops of cava on a silver spoon, as well as a family tree showing their Codorníu origins. But they are not assured of a job at the firm or a stake in it. An internal rule says only those with good English, a college degree and at least five years’ experience working somewhere else may join a firm that until the mid-1990s was the largest cava producer. “There is one question that horrifies me: how many bottles do you sell?” says Raventós. “I would rather talk about quality.”

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